I’m not normally all gung ho about upcoming Japanese RPGs, but Ni no Kuni is kind of hard to pass up. Firstly, it’s developed by Level 5, makers of Dark Cloud and Rogue Galaxy. I really liked what those games did. Even if White Knight Chronicles was a disappointment, I still believe in what these guys can do.
Secondly, Studio Ghibli worked on it. They are the fantastic animators behind movies like Spirited Away and Ponyo. I pity the gamer that isn’t at least a little excited by the talent converging on this title.
Anyways, the demo dropped on Tuesday, and I rushed to download it and give it a try. Here are my thoughts.
1.) As you can tell from the screen shots, the game looks pretty gorgeous. The characters in particular look fantastic. The animations are great, lighting is well above average, and the anime look simply works. There were some moments where 3D models clashed with the 2D style, but beyond that the game looks great. Those in it for the art won’t be disappointed.
2.) The story tells the tale of a boy named Oliver. His mother died shortly after rescuing him from drowning and, as you can imagine, he’s kind of in a personal hell. His tears turn his doll to life, revealing it to be a fairy named Drippy from the land of Ni no Kuni. Suggesting that this land may hold the secret to getting his mother back, Drippy takes Oliver there and so begins the adventure. The art style clearly suggests a light hearted adventure, but the heavy opening also suggests that there may be some real emotional power to this game. I’m intrigued, but Level 5 tends to be weakest when it comes to storytelling. It should be interesting to see how this game develops.
3.) While there was speech in the game, most of the dialogue was given via text in a way that games have been doing for decades. I was kind of expecting a bit more, especially from a demo that was over two gigs in size. Honestly, that part of the game seems a bit antiquated. I don’t necessarily need every line to be voiced, but I would appreciate more of it. The voices were pretty good too, which only deepened the disappointment.
4.) The demo actually includes two different starting points. You’re given twenty-five minutes to play around, though the demo will end if you reach a certain point. The first part starts with a boss fight and moves on to basic gameplay. The second part gives you three minutes to scale a volcano and ends with a much tougher boss fight. These two sequences were a fair ways apart in terms of story from what I could tell, as Oliver looked different, gained a companion, and seemed much more capable in general. Both parts do a pretty good job of giving the player an idea of what the full game will be like.
5.) Navigating around the world will come as second nature to anyone who has ever played this kind of game. There’s an overworld you can traverse, as well as towns, dungeons, and forests. These areas tend to be fairly simple in design. Both areas I explored were linear, offering one path to a goal marked on the map. However, there were some interesting moments, such as shimmying on a cliff side whilst attempting to avoid fire jets. I’m interested to see what else the game has.
6.) One of the most important elements of any good RPG is the battle system. Ni no Kuni was a bit different from what I’m used to. The command wheel was pretty basic. You can select from basic stuff like attack and defend, or go into spells, provisions, and such. You can freeze the action to target specific enemies, cast spells, etc. Though you may have a party, you can only control one character at a time. In addition, you can summon a familiar to fight in your place. Familiars have their own stats, levels, and skills. They do share HP and MP with their human though. Battles were interesting in that battles take place in real time. As such, attacks can be interrupted, and you’re able to move freely around the battlefield. One use for this was using a familiar to draw the boss to one side of the map so that when I switched back over to Oliver, I had time to cast a healing spell before getting back into the fray. Enemies would also drop little orbs that had restorative properties. These could be gathered by running over them. The battle system takes some getting used to, but I see a lot of potential here.
7.) Familiars are clearly a huge part of the game. They almost seem to work like Pokemon. They level, learn skills, can improve stats via eating treats, and may have to forget one skill in order to learn another. I’m not sure how many different kinds the game will offer, but I’m sure there are more than the three apiece available in the demo. Choosing the right one for battle will certainly be an interesting dilemma.
8.) There was another mechanic that I didn’t get to spend a lot of time with. It involves taking pieces of heart from one person and giving them to another. The example in the game was an unenthusiastic guard that wouldn’t open a gate. Using a magical locket, I borrowed some enthusiasm from another guard that plenty to spare and used it on the grumpy one. This allowed me to get through. This could lead to some interesting puzzles later on in the game. I wish I could have seen more.
9.) Players of previous Level 5 games will certainly note some similarities. In fact, this game seems to take some lessons from White Knight Chronicles and use them on the older style of games. By that I mean the game is more JRPG and less action RPG. However, this is more of a mix. It was nice that during battle, running away from an enemy helped me avoid attacks, and that I had to get in close for a physical strike. I also liked that one enemy spat fire on the ground and I had to manually avoid it or suffer damage. The charm that WKC lacked is back as well. I’m very interested.
10.) I’m kind of jealous that Japan has had this game for over a year and we still have to wait a few more months before it’s released here in the states. It’s rare that I’m looking forward to a JRPG, but this one honestly just became something I can’t wait to play. While it may have to wait behind more pressing titles like God of War: Ascension and Bioshock Infinite, you can be sure I’ll be playing this in 2013. Make sure you come back for the review!